Qian (Janice) Wang



2-1-13 Pop-up : Concept Dinner

Dishes can express abstract ideas, too.

For the first Media Lab pop-up dinner, I wanted to play with the idea of using a dish to express a concept, like solace and hope, instead of just being food.


The pop-up dinner took place in a room leading to a stairwell. It was just big enough for a table and six chairs. (And yes, the light is purple.)



I constructed the menu with five courses, with a music pairing and sometimes aroma pairing to reinforce the idea the dish expresses.


First Course
Theme: Ephemeral
Grapefruit Campari sorbet with rosemary vapor

Music: First 19 seconds of Turquoise Hexagon Sun by Boards of Canada.


For this dish, I wanted to pair the clean, bitter, fragrant flavors of grapefruit and campari in a light and refreshing form. The spacey feeling of the music enhances the flavors, and the rosemary vapor adds an extra refreshing touch. Both the vapor and the sorbet changes form quickly, emphasizing the theme "ephemeral".


Second Course Theme: Routine
Bread and cheese squares

Music: First 68 seconds of Ballerina by Biosphere.


The highly structured music reminds me of the routine of a 9-5 work day. To pair with the music, I wanted to arrange the food to graphically represent something highly regimented. I used bread and cheese, both of which are "daily" ingredients.


Third Course Theme: Spring
Sous-vide asparagus, tahini ginger dressing

Music: Kyoto by Nest


I wanted to highlight the green flavor of the asparagus, and the song Kyoto reminds me of rain on a cold spring day. To me, there is a sense of vitality in the music and the dish.


Fourth Course Theme: Remembrance
Mushroom lasagna

Music: H in New England by Max Richter


H in New England sounds very nostalgic, like a train ride back in time. I wanted to pair it with something that has associations with childhood and home without calling on specific childhood memories; I settled on the mushroom lasagna, which is comforting and warm. I put rosemary in the lasagna as a play on rosemary's association with remembrance.


Fifth Course Theme: Solace
Coffee sabayon, warm snickerdoodle cookies

Music: first 80 seconds of Frozen Angels by Zoe Keating


I wanted the diners to smell the aroma of freshly baked snickerdoodle cookies as they ate the bittersweet coffee foam. The low notes of Zoe Keating's cello complements the bitter notes of the coffee, but the sweetness and richness of the sabayon and cookies brings out warmth in the bitter background.



I gave all the diners a questionnaire where I asked them to guess the theme for each course. I also asked them to match the themes with the courses, given a list of all the themes I used. The only dish to consistent be matched correctly was Routine.

Some things I learned from people's feedback:

A big part of the dinner was the effect of music on tasting, so each course had its own music. People noticed the music at first, but very quickly get accustomed to the music. One person said they stopped noticing the music after the second course.

Unlike the music pairing which quickly became overlooked for some people, the smell pairing was a big hit, especially with the fresh cookies.

Out of ordinary foods, like the bread and cheese grid, made people think about the dish more, whereas familiar foods like the lasagna was overlooked.

People have very different food associations (I also had a diverse group of diners). For instance, the asparagus dish was homey for some people and fancy for others. Cheddar cheese was familiar and "american" for some and exotic for others! This goes to show how difficult it is to make cultural assumptions about food when planning to use food to convey meaning. Moreover, I designed the dishes without any thought to cultural associations, and they came anyway!